Florida farmers turn to ancient tree for biofuel and protein

An ancient Indian tree, pongamia, is thriving in former citrus groves in Florida, potentially offering renewable energy solutions and plant-based proteins. Over the past two decades, Florida’s citrus industry has been devastated by diseases like greening and citrus canker, leading farmers to seek alternatives. The climate-resilient pongamia tree, which produces bitter legumes not even wild hogs eat, requires minimal maintenance and no pesticides or fertilizers. It can withstand both drought and heavy rain.

Terviva, a San Francisco-based company, has patented a process to make pongamia beans suitable for food by removing their bitter taste. This makes the beans viable for products like Panova table oil, Kona protein bars, and protein flour. The beans also yield oil useful as a biofuel, particularly for aviation, which leaves a low carbon footprint.

Pongamia’s adaptability and low maintenance needs make it a suitable replacement for citrus. It supports local biodiversity and can produce oil at a yield comparable to four acres of soybeans per acre. The tree is also grown in Hawaii on former sugarcane land.

John Olson, a farmer near Fort Pierce, has replaced his citrus groves with 215 acres of pongamia, citing the high costs and risks of maintaining diseased citrus trees. The shift to pongamia offers ecological benefits, replacing environmentally harmful crops like palm oil.

In December 2023, Terviva partnered with Mitsubishi Corporation to develop biofuel from pongamia, furthering the tree’s potential as a sustainable resource. Research continues into various food products derived from pongamia, offering an alternative to meat-based proteins.